Designer Rian Hughes On His Comics Future Past

Rian Hughes On His Comics Future Past

In the early 90s, Rian Hughes changed the way UK readers saw comics – both with the sequential pages themselves as well as the wrapping they came in. But for American audiences, they never knew his work – until now.


In the new book Yesterday’s Tomorrows from Image, Rian Hughes’ comics work of the late 80s and early 90s is finally collected and seen for the first time in the United States. Beginning with his own self-published comics Zit in 1983, Hughes rose through the ranks of the British comics scene and into the spotlight as one of the most forward-thinking artists of the time working on strips such as Dan Dare with Grant Morrison, the graphic novel The Science Service with John Freeman and an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Goldfish.

 

Magazine editors and publishers took notice of Hughes’ design skill, and I employed him to redesign popular mags such as Revolver, Speakeasy, Crisis and English mainstay 2000AD. Soon, his design work outpaced his comics career and he transitioned into a fulltime design role, doing work both inside and outside comics. For American audiences, he is best known for his frequent design work for DC Comics including covers for The Invisibles and the Tangent line of comics. Hughes illustration work and type design made him a household name in design houses but also a fondly-remembered artist for UK comics fan who read his work.

In Yesterday’s Tomorrows, Hughes has accumulated much of his UK comics work including the aforementioned comics work, in addition to sketchbook pages, merchandise design and rare strips – some never published before. The 400+ page over-size book came out earlier this month, and Hughes talked with Newsarama by email about the book and his days as a full-time cartoonist.

 

Newsarama: In the UK you're widely known as both a designer and comic creator,  but the U.S. you're primarily known as a designer. What's it like to get this book of your comics out to the Americas?

Rian Hughes: As my comics career was almost entirely spent working in the UK and Europe for magazines like 2000AD, this is a very belated US release for this material.

Nrama: It's been a few years since these were originally published, and since printing technology has improved have you gone back and adjusted any of the work appearing here?

Hughes: Dan Dare was mostly rescanned from the original art, so the colours are now nice and clean. I'd somehow managed to mislay the art for Really and Truly in a move, so this is scanned from the printed version, and necessitated quite a bit of colour correction and cleanup.

 

Nrama: You were pretty much a full-time comic artist for about six years – when do you feel you really hit your stride back then?

Hughes: Sadly, I think I was hitting my stride just as I lost interest. I turned my attention to mainstream advertising illustration and design, mostly for music, publishing and advertising. And the direction my illustration was going in - much more stylised and abstract and designy - didn't seem to fit with the way many comics were going. I do love the form, however, and have always had comic book ideas fermenting in the back of my mind.

My involvement in comics as a designer has not diminished, though - designing a logo is much more manageable than drawing a regular book, of course. I have been trying for 20 years to make comics look good from a design point of view. Sometimes they are their worst enemy, though - I hope in some small way I've managed to de-ghettoise them, make them look a wee bit more credible as pop culture artifacts.

One project that is coming out in November is Cult-ure. This takes the narrative possibilities not of illustration, but of graphic design, and is a kind of "graphic graphic novel".  The closest comparison I can make is probably The Medium is the Massage. This began life in a request many years ago by Shelly Bond at DC for me to send her proposals. I think I just confused her when I pitched what ultimately became this book, as it's not really a comic at all. But it does explore the way meaning and language are articulated through images, and sets out to explore the nuts and bolts of the visual language that designers manipulate for their ends. It's subtitled "Ideas can be dangerous!" and should cause a few waves I hope. [

Just out are these books as well: Lifestyle Illustration of the 50s, Lifestyle Illustration of the 60s, and Custom Lettering of the 40s & 50s and Custom Lettering of the 60s & 70s.

Steve Seagal and myself have a project that's currently in development hell called Marshall Artist - note the McLuhan reference again. And Grant and I did have a long conversation earlier in the year about a new collaboration, and he swears he's got most of it all worked out, but who knows when that'll actually happen. If he just can put Batman down for a moment...

 

Nrama: Are there things you wanted to do in comics but never got around to it?

Hughes: I don't have any ambitions to do superhero comics, but I definitely want to do more one-off graphic novels, and bring to bear the experience I've gained in mainstream illustration to comics. The last time I drew comics, I didn't even have a Mac! The internet was in its infancy, I wasn't on email, and Google was way off. A lot has changed.

Nrama: I read somewhere that you were actually offered a chance to do an Adam Strange title from DC. Can you tell us about that, and what happened to it?

Hughes: This was at the point where I was completely burned out on comics. If I could have cloned myself, I'd have loved to have done it. DC were very accommodating, and what was to be a regular series was downscaled to a mini series, and even a one off, to make it more manageable, but at that point I felt like I really didn't want to draw comics ever again. I'd been doing advertising illustration - where you can add a nought or two to the fees - during the week, then producing five pages of colour art in two days over Friday and Saturday to hit a Monday 2000AD deadline for very little money for far too long. And, I think stylistically I was moving onto the Mac and was more interested in exploring the illustration possibilities inherent in Adobe Illustrator. This exploration morphed into what's been called my "Lifestyle style" and cultural blogger Will Kane calls my "Sans Ligne"  style in tribute to its "Ligne Claire" roots (lots of examples on my site). This was hugely popular for quite a while - so much so, that there's a whole bunch of copyists out there that even my Mum thinks are actually me.

 

Nrama: Were there any other projects you were offered that you regret not taking?

Hughes: I also recall being asked if I'd like to draw Dean Motter's Terminal City - Dean's Mr X is one of my all time favourite characters. Another opportunity that I wish had come at a different time. In the end, Michael Lark did an excellent job.

Nrama: You've had a long collaboration with Grant Morrison, doing both design and comics for Dan Dare, Really & Truly and much of his U.S. Comics work. You've each gone your separate ways, but what do you think of your collaborations back then and what your friend has accomplished in comics?

Hughes: I was spoiled. I've worked with other good writers, but I simply assumed that every writer had the kind of wild creativity, intelligence and structural intuition that Grant brings to his work. 

Being a designer as well as an illustrator, I really appreciate structure - design is pretty much the structuring of material in a beautiful, harmonious and comprehensible manner on a page, whereas storytelling is the 4D narrative equivalent. It was a bit of a let down to find out later that not everyone hits his level of invention. 

 

And to be fair, sometimes Grant bites off more than he can chew and incomprehensibility rears it's head. But that kind of breathless ambition is always to be applauded.

I also began reading US comics for the first time at that point where those writers and artists I'd been following in 2000AD while at art school began moving to DC. So I vividly recall buying each issue of Watchmen as it came out. In retrospect, I think Watchmen was seen in two quite different ways by two different sets of people. I appreciated it for its inventive storytelling techniques, the immaculately crafted structure, the overall circular (clock-face, or watch-face) story arc, and the manner in which it had enough distance from the superhero genre to see the wood for the trees. I was looking forward to seeing more comics that would, I hoped, explore some inventive ground breaking storytelling techniques, seeing writers and artists stretch the form in all manner of new and interesting ways, really opening up the language and structural possibilities of the medium. Unfortunately, it seems that most readers read Watchmen and thought "Cool! Rorschach goes into a bar and breaks someone's fingers!  And then someone gets raped!" So we had ten years of truly horrible violent superhero comics, that were 'adult' only in the most embarrassingly prurient adolescent manner. So for ten years I hardly read any comics at all. I just lost interest. In the last six or seven years, however, I think the range of styles and approaches in more mainstream comics seems to be broadening out, though I would appreciate more stories with a beginning, a middle and an end.

And Grant is still at the top of his game, and as prolific as ever!

 

Nrama: Although I've read that you didn't think much of superhero comics when you were a kid, I did find you followed the monster/mystery books Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko did years back. What did the young Rian Hughes read growing up?

Hughes: From a comics perspective, I was steeped in the pre-superhero Marvel material that Alan Class reprinted over here - in black and white, and on blotting paper. The quality was abominable, but somehow when you're 14 that doesn't seem to matter so much. I was aware that these were reprints, and some were very old indeed - this being the late 70s, I was reading comics that had originally been published in the 60s and 50s. The clothes, the hairstyles... they were from a different time, and a different place. Which, of course, only added to their vintage appeal. It's strange to see them in pop-art brash colours - pure magentas, cyans and yellows - in the Masterworks reprint volumes. They shit all over Roy Lichtenstein.

I also read a comic called Countdown, which featured reprints from TV 21 by UK luminaries like Frank Bellamy and Ron Embleton. There seems to be a pattern emerging, doesn't there? Lots of reprints! This was the UK market back then.

 

Countdown also had a strip, called Countdown, by John M Burns (the UK, not the US artist). His sense of colour and design was  - and still is - incredible. Bold layouts, dynamic figure drawing, surreal acid colours - purples, magentas, lime greens and cyans. John was a huge inspiration for me at an early age. By contrast, the colours on US comics, being added later rather than by the actual artist, looked very crude.

I ten pretty much ignored comics until I came across Serge Clerc in the pages of UK music magazine called New Musical Express, which back then was a newspaper-sized weekly. This led to me submitting strips inspired by this collision of design and illustration - the strong page layouts and clean lines of the Franco/Belgian Ligne Claire school - to Paul Gravett's Escape magazine. Paul is responsible for getting me into European clear-line comics in a big way.

Nrama: The pace of being a full-time comic strip artist can be pretty grueling. Do you miss the life of a comic artist at all?

Hughes: I'm a workaholic. But variety is a must to keep it interesting.

What do you think of his Design-infused story telling?

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